A (Mildly) Feminist Look at Wagner’s Ring

Birgit Nilsson’s Brünnhilde Helmet
By Susan Brodie

I came to Wagner relatively late in my opera-going career, having long avoided what I thought would be a ponderous, repetitive marathon of politically tainted mythology – my only childhood exposure to Wagner was via Anna Russell, which really didn’t help. Finally I attended a performance of The Flying Dutchman and came away pleasantly surprised, even though Senta’s ultimate sacrifice struck me as gratuitous and annoying. So I queued for standing room tickets to a Ring cycle and was captivated from the first notes of Das Rheingold. By the entrance of Fasolt and Fafner I was a convert to this fabulous fairy tale full of magic tricks, galumphing giants, and gods behaving badly.

Exploring Wagner beyond the Tetralogy I couldn’t help noticing a certain dismissive attitude toward women. Too many of the libretti ooze with a fear of feminine seductive power – Venus and her followers and Kundry and her Flower Maidens come immediately to mind. Others depict the heroines as trophies – think Eva and Isolde. Elsewhere Wagner uses women’s clichéd weaknesses as critical plot devices – Elsa’s fatal Pandora-like curiosity or Ortrud’s ruthless ambition. And too often women simply expire in a heap at opera’s end, seemingly because Wagner doesn’t know what else to do with them.

But after experiencing a Ring cycle or two, I realized that something different was going on here: women play at least equal and arguably greater roles in propelling the key events of the Ring and in revealing the underpinnings and motivations of the plot. Many more men are killed off in the course of the narration than women. And while many of the actions that propel the plot are initiated by men, woman play critical roles in influencing outcome, either through persuasion or by action.

The women of the Ring don’t immediately strike one as remarkable, especially when they appear in groups. Das Rheingold‘s three Rhinemaidens are variants on the Lorelei, seductive, ditzy, and ineffectual guardians of the gold. After teasing Alberich they become completely unglued when he gets fed up and steals the treasure, and they lament its loss throughout the cycle. The sole powers of Freia, the goddess of youth, lie in her beauty and in the apples she cultivates to maintain the gods’ youth. Wotan’s consort, Fricka, is charged with upholding the sanctity of marriage but is powerless to defend her own marriage from Wotan’s chronic infidelity. Only Erda, the wise woman rising from the bowels of the earth, can halt the power-hungry Wotan, already under the curse of the Ring he has wrested from Alberich. (Opinions vary on Erda’s allure – in Vera Nemirova’s current Ring for Oper Frankfurt, she appears as a shaggy furball with enormous breasts – but she bears Wotan a daughter, Brünnhilde). By the end of the opera, Wotan, chief god and upholder of contracts, has broken his own contract with the giants who built his castle, used his sister-in-law as collateral, stolen the already-stolen goods by treachery, and arranged an assignation with a mysterious woman while his own wife was watching. No wonder the trickster demi-god Loge is vicariously ashamed for the gods.

In Die Walküre the women begin to show some mettle. Sieglinde at first seems a typical abused wife, compliant and fearful of everything, especially her husband, Hunding. But the bond she feels with the handsome stranger who appears on her hearth makes her bold. She begins talking back to Hunding and later drugs him, shows the stranger a convenient weapon, and ultimately runs away with him – in an impulsive, incestuous fugue – and bears his child.

Act II is the turning point of the entire cycle’s plot, as Wotan’s scheme to save the gods from the demise foretold by Erda begins to fall apart. After a brief scene in which Wotan instructs his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde, to let Siegmund win the upcoming confrontation with Hunding, Fricka browbeats Wotan into a promise to sacrifice his son and let the wronged husband win the battle, thus upholding the laws of marriage. More critically, her argument makes him recognize his own logical error in imagining that Siegmund could be a free hero capable of acting to save the gods without divine assistance. Fricka here puts the interests of justice and the social order before her own happiness, because the blow to Wotan’s pride further undermines their union. She has the courage and clarity to make Wotan face the truth, and it’s not pretty.

Brünnhilde returns and is shocked when Wotan reverses his earlier instructions to help Siegmund because she understands his love for the youth and his plan for Siegmund to save the gods from the annihilation foretold by Erda. As a dutiful daughter she reluctantly agrees to obey, but when she appears to Siegmund to announce his impending death, she is so moved by his profound love for Sieglinde and their unborn child that she decides to let him win the battle. Experiencing for the first time the transformative power of love she dares to exercise independent critical judgment and, also for the first time, defies Wotan. Sieglinde for her part grows from cringing chattel to fearless mother-to-be, passing through remorse over allowing her own debasement as a sexual object to love for and courage on behalf of her unborn child.

The valiant Valkyries open Act III in a noisy blaze of glory but are reduced to quaking, timorous ninnies when the enraged Wotan forbids all contact with their about-to-be-banished sister Brünnhilde. Little progress there – but there’s a widening gulf between Brünnhilde and her unquestioning and compliant virginal sisters, as, emboldened by her newly-awakened compassion, she improvises a strategy to protect Sieglinde and the unborn hero she bears before facing up to her father’s fury and arguing her case. Ultimately she must accept the price of her independence, but – thinking fast – she persuades Wotan to temper her punishment by erecting a barrier that only a worthy hero can penetrate. In this scene we see the self-aggrandizing bravado of Wotan’s recapitulation of the story transformed, at least momentarily, into realization of what he has lost.

Siegfried is a testosterone-filled hero’s quest populated with men, beasts, and monsters (though in Günther Krämer’s current Paris production Mime wears a dress and wig). Siegfried’s “mother” is Alberich’s brother, Mime, who has raised Siegfried to recover the Ring from the dragon Fafner. Siegfried, the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde, seems a typical teenage boy: impatient, impudent, ignorant, intolerant, ungrateful. He’s also strong and brave, but he knows nothing of women, or love, or, tellingly, fear. Guided in his quest by the voice of a bird (sung by a woman), a taste of the blood of the dragon he has slain enables him to hear the true meaning behind Mime’s honeyed words. (A true feminist theorist might insist on the blood as symbolic of woman’s wisdom.) In the prelude to Siegfried’s decisive encounter with Wotan-in-disguise, Wotan explains to Erda that he cannot consult with their daughter, Brünnhilde, because he has punished the Valkyrie’s boldness by putting her to sleep on a rock surrounded by flames. This so disgusts Erda that she loses patience and dismisses him without answering his questions, further underlining his waning authority. Wotan challenges Siegfried, his grandson, who shatters the old man’s spear to reach the woman, whereupon Wotan slinks back to Valhalla to await the end of the world. Only when Siegfried finally breaches the ring of fire and discovers Brünnhilde, the first woman he has ever met, does he learn fear, quickly followed by love – or at least lust. Interestingly, his first words are of gratitude to the mother who bore him (and died in childbirth) so he could experience the delight of loving this woman. Brünnhilde’s answer makes clear the complexity of her own first human love, born of Wotan’s love for Siegmund and now embodied in Siegmund’s child. Brünnhilde also fears her unfamiliar human vulnerability, so Siegfried must woo her to achieve ecstatic union.

By Götterdämmerung we have entered a world of moral decay wherein everything begins to go wrong, as foretold by Erda’s daughters, the Norns, in the prologue. Hagen, sired by Alberich to help him achieve world domination, exploits his weak half-siblings, Gunther and Gutrune, to help him destroy Siegfried and regain the Ring for his father. The now-mortal Brünnhilde is confused by her new and unfamiliar feelings for Siegfried and has also to a degree herself succumbed to the curse of the Ring, which Siegfried has given her. While Siegfried, off seeking adventure, is falling into the Gibichung’s trap, Brünnhilde’s sister Waltraute slips away from the gods’ death watch on Valhalla to beg Brünnhilde to do the right thing and return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens, but in vain. Abducted by the Tarnhelm-disguised and potion-addled Siegfried, Brünnhilde becomes Gunther’s trophy bride, watching in confusion and outrage as her beloved Siegfried, once again in possession of the Ring, weds the alluring but vacuous Gutrune. Not yet recognizing Hagen’s treachery, Brünnhilde succumbs to her desire for vengeance and betrays Siegfried, who dies by Hagen’s spear. But at the crucial moment, when Hagen is about to seize the Ring from the dead Siegfried’s finger, she takes control of the dénouement. (I have a delicious memory of Jane Eaglen surveying Gibichung Hall and drawing herself tall – I could almost hear her say, “Right, then, best get this all sorted out.”) Brünnhilde snatches the Ring, destined at last to be returned to the Rhinemaidens, and rides her steed into the funeral pyre, triggering a fiery end to the disaster that both gods and men have made of their world and returning the earth to a state of nature.

While once again Wagner has a woman choose to end her life – most spectacularly – at the dénouement, Brünnhilde’s actions represent a moral decision on behalf of a greater good. Throughout the cycle we see the decline of the father’s powers and the rise of his daughter’s authority. What men have made a mess of, a woman has set right. In a century of operatic heroines representing prostitutes, stage performers (often assumed to be prostitutes), temptresses, priestesses of questionable virtue, wives, virgins, or at best feisty daughters, Brünnhilde is a woman of whom feminists may be proud.

Many of these points may be argued, and I hope they will be. Lively discussion is one of the great pleasures of Wagner’s Ring.







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